Genius in the Picatrix: The Ritual Itself, and Why Do It Anyway

Last time, we started talking about a particularly interesting bit of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE.  Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe.  Although focused on what we’d nowadays call stellar image magic, the creation of astrological talismans bearing magical images and scenes made under particular stellar configurations, the text is famous for its wide inventory of bizarre magical concoctions and confections for a variety of purposes, its lengthy invocations to the planetary spirits, and its preservation of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples.  It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does.  Yet, in book III, chapter 6, we encounter an interesting section on the “Perfect Nature”, a sort of guiding spirit or genius, originally encountered by Hermēs Trismegistus himself.  The last post discussed some of the symbolic components and associations we can make to the four powers of Perfect Nature; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

Anyway, at this point, we now have everything prepared for the ritual, including ourselves.  Once the ritual area has been prepared with the candy confection made, the altar and braziers/censers have been set up appropriately, and the Moon has entered the first degree of Aries (ideally at the very moment of the Moon entering the first degree of Aries), perform the ritual:

  1. Light the candle, then put it in the middle of the dish with the candy confection (if the candle is encased in glass or another foodsafe material, or if the dish itself has a space for the candle), or immediately next to it towards the east if this is not possible.
  2. Fill the two braziers/censers with burning coals or otherwise light the coals in the braziers/censers, and set frankincense and mastic in the one to the north and aloeswood in the other to the south.  Alternatively, if using self-igniting stick/cone incense, light those now in the same order.
  3. Stand upright to the west of the altar facing east towards the altar.
  4. Recite the four names of the spirits of Perfect Nature seven times, whether using the Latin Picatrix version:

    Meegius, Betzahuech, Vacdez, Nufeneguediz

    Or the Arabic Picatrix version:

    Tamāġīs, Baġdīswād, Waġdās, Nūfānāġādīs

  5. Recite the following prayer (my own version, synthesized from the translations of Greer/Warnock, Attrell/Porreca, and Atallah/Kiesel):

    I call you, o high and powerful Spirit of Spirits, o Wisest of the Wise, o Intelligent of all Intelligence, o Knowledgeable of the Knowledge of the whole world!  It is from you that the knowledge and understanding of the wise proceed, and it is by your virtue that the desires of the wise are accomplished.  Hear me, answer me, come to me, be present here with me; unite me with your powers and draw me close to your knowledge; strengthen me with your knowledge, and grant me to understand what I do not understand, know the things I do not know, and see the things I do not see!  Remove from me and protect me from all blindness, corruption, forgetfulness, and disease.  Lift me up to the level of the ancient sages, those whose hearts were filled with intelligence, wisdom, understanding, and insight.  Let all this abide in my heart forever; imprint and affix these things in my heart, that they may never depart from me!

  6. Engage in communion with the Perfect Nature.

That’s it.  For all the complexity of much of what’s in the Picatrix, as far as ingredients or elections or supplies are concerned, this ritual is surprisingly simple and straightforward.  Let the candle burn out on its own, then disassemble the altar and ritual area.

After the directions above, the Latin Picatrix and its translations then say that one is to proceed to the table and partake in the wine, oils, and confection as desired as a sacred feast.  This suggests to me that the altar (or another table in the ritual area) may also have other foodstuffs on it in addition to the wine and oils, e.g. breads, cakes, and the like, but with the candy confection being of primary importance.  More than that, however, the Latin Picatrix and its translations say that the one who performs this ritual is to proceed to the table and feast “with their friends”, indicating that this is a sacred feast to be held and shared not just with one’s own Perfect Nature, but with others who may wish to commune with them as well, or with one’s students or colleagues in the Work.  Because multiple people might be involved, all potentially having different planetary rulerships, having this ritual timed along to a particular planet’s hour/day, rising/culminating, or its sign(s) rising or culminating or having braziers/censers intentionally made with a particular planetary metal may not be advisable, depending on who will be there participating in the ritual.  If on your own or with people who share the same ruling planet, then this could be a good idea for all involved, but otherwise, it might be better to forego such a consideration.

However, I should also note that, although this notion of a sacred communal meal is appealing, it is entirely absent from the Atallah/Kiesel translation—and thus, likely from the Arabic Picatrix in general.  The Atallah/Kiesel translation says nothing about proceeding to the table to partake of whatever is on it, nor anything about sharing a meal with one’s friends.  In fact, later on in the Atallah/Kiesel translation, there’s even a bit that suggests that doing this communally may not be a good idea in general:

Aristotle mentioned in his book also that the first philosopher that worked with these talismans and had the spirits appear to him and led him to the wonders of talismans and made him connect with his perfect nature and opened his eyes to the mysterious secrets of creation.  Also those spirits that told him will never appear to anyone else but you, unless they call our name and present a gift of sacrifice in our name.

This is made all the more confusing, given that the Perfect Nature (or “familiar spirit”) of Caraphzebiz told him in the Latin Picatrix:

“I will remain with you, but do not reveal me to others or speak of me, and make sacrifices in my name.”

In this light, the Picatrix strongly seems to suggest that it would perhaps be best that this whole ritual be done individually, or as an act of sacrifice to one’s own Perfect Nature, whether or not a teacher or mystagogue was present to direct and arrange the ritual for you, and even then, that would probably be best up to that mystagogue’s own Perfect Nature.  In this light, the offerings of wine, oil, and candy may all be a sacrifice to this spirit, not to be consumed by the person performing the ritual.  I suppose, however, at that point, you’d be listening to the directives of your Perfect Nature, who may invite you to partake in it all the same.  It’s unclear; it’s interesting that the Latin Picatrix would include such a shift in ritual directives that the Arabic Picatrix does not, while still holding to the same overall idea elsewhere.

Also, would it be strange that Perfect Nature should give Hermēs Trismegistus a prayer that seeks to make him like “the ancient sages”, given how ancient Hermēs himself is and given how Hermēs is considered to be the founder of so much of philosophy and science?  Not really; we find references in the Asclepius and Stobaean Fragments that the Hermēs we call Trismegistus is but one in a line of Hermai, and likewise for Asclepius from the earlier and more famous deified Imhotep.  Hermēs Trismegistus himself in the Hermetic writings is not just the author of ancient wisdom, but an initiator and preserver of wisdom that was established even before his time.  And, in a much later Abrahamic cultural milieu that, despite ennobling and praising him, still puts him down as a mere pagan, while Islam and Christianity were seen as pristine and purer forms of philosophy and religion dating back to the beginning of the world, this prayer allows for both a connection deeper into the Hermetic mysteries as well as more generalized divine ones that go back to the beginning of all Creation.  Depending on how you look at it, of course; given how the Picatrix also preserves outright pagan and non-Abrahamic practices, holding to an Abrahamic interpretation of what Perfect Nature can tie into is not necessarily a given.  All the same, it is something neat to pick up on here.

So, all that being said, that’s the approach one should take to understanding and communing with the Perfect Nature from book III, chapter 6 of the Picatrix.  At what point should one do this?  I mean, yes, this can be done anytime the Moon is in the first degree of Aries, and judging by the various forms of the Picatrix, this should be done at least once a year by everyone, but at what point in one’s spiritual practice, especially if one takes a Picatrix-heavy or -centric approach, should one undertake this?  I’d argue that it should be one of the very first things actually done, as opposed to study alone.  After all, if what the Picatrix says is true, that:

  • nothing “in this science” can be perfected, done, or accomplished except when the virtues and dispositions of the planets and stars allow it
  • Perfect Nature strengthens the intellect and wisdom of those who seek to do these works
  • each sage has their own proper virtue infused into them according to the works of Perfect Nature in conjunction with the powers of their own ruling planet
  • that perfecting one’s Perfect Nature grants knowledge, understanding, success, increase of wealth and station, protection from harm, and “many other things”

…then communing with and perfecting one’s Perfect Nature is essential for spiritual works, and not just in the Picatrix.  The Picatrix is tapping into a long-standing cross-cultural tradition of communing with and learning from one’s own agathodaimōn, genius, paredos, tutelar, guardian angel, or whatever you want to call it, yet it also takes on a specific association with the particular “powers of the sage” here that furthers mere education into something much, much more.  Note that the Picatrix says that the sages of old “taught all knowledge and subtleties of philosophy” before giving their students the means to work with Perfect Nature, indicating that the students of the wise first needed to understand what things are before how to make the best use of them, and that while the sages could certainly teach what can be done and how they do it, it’s one’s own Perfect Nature that teaches the how, what, and why of what each individual should best do for themselves.  Perfect Nature is the solution to the intractable problems of life that no sage, philosopher, or teacher can answer: as Hermēs says, Perfect Nature is that “by which is understood that which cannot be otherwise be understood at all, and from which workings proceed naturally both in sleep and in waking”.  The Perfect Nature is the perfect teacher, the one teacher who can truly teach us what is best and in the best way above and beyond any other.  It’s just that the Perfect Nature still needs us to learn about the world first so that we know how to properly interact with it; after all, you can’t build if you don’t have raw materials to build with.

In this, there are intensely strong parallels between Perfect Nature and True Will, as well, from a modern perspective.  If the Thelemic concept of True Will is “the true purpose of the totality of one’s being” and that “its discovery is initiation….and its nature is to move continually”, that it is “the true expression of the Nature, the proper or inherent motion of the matter concerned”, then to live according to one’s True Will is to fully realize the purpose, method, means, and aims of one’s proper and best life, as accorded to us by Divinity.  This, too, then is also what Perfect Nature does in virtually the same way, taking the influences of our ruling planet and refining them, joining them with divine methods to accomplish that which is best for us.  And, if we’re to take Hermēs at his word at the end of this chapter of the Picatrix, Perfect Nature really is the solution to all the problems of the wise: how science and philosophy can be joined, what the root is of science and philosophy individually and together, and how the secrets of science and philosophy may be opened to us.  Not just how or what, either, I suppose, as the Perfect Nature does more than merely tell us these things; it informs (forms within) us, it instructs (builds within) us.  After all, as Ṭumṭum al-Hindi says in the Atallah/Kiesel translation of the Arabic Picatrix (this doesn’t appear to be in the Latin Picatrix, minor edits for clarity and structure):

…when you first start to look inside of yourself to your managing spirit that connects you with your star—and that is the Perfect Nature that Hermēs the Wise mentioned in his book saying “the microcosm”, in which he meant the human—his soul would be in a similar position to that of the stationary Sun in the sky that shines with its light on the whole world.  Just so does the Perfect Nature spread in the soul so its rays connect with the power of Wisdom and pulls it until it is centered in the soul in its own proper place, just as the Sun pulls and directs the rays of the cosmos to hold itself up in the heavens.

Remember what we said earlier about our inverted vignette, how instead of Hermēs digging in a pit for the four powers of Perfect Nature, he looks to the four pillars of Heaven (or the four corners of the World) to obtain them?  If Hermēs attaining the power at the top of the heavens to still the winds is effectively him reaching his Perfect Nature, and if the top of the vault of Heaven is supported by its pillars, then we see that the relationship one has with one’s Perfect Nature is reliant upon building and refining those four spiritual powers, “just as the Sun pulls and directs the rays of the cosmos to hold itself up in the heavens”.  The Perfect Nature is self-sustaining, providing its own support, much like a spiritual singularity: once you have it, so long as you do not utterly shut yourself off from it, you’ll be set on your proper path to perfect your nature and fulfill your true will.  This, however, is still Work—it is the Work, which is why this ritual is not just a once-and-done thing, but something to be done periodically to continually maintain a relationship with your Perfect Nature in an intimate and personal way, as opposed to the subtle and suggestive ways.

This leads me to think about one more thing about the image of the City of Adocentyn from book IV, chapter 7 of the Picatrix: the central color-changing citadel.  Consider the similarity we have here with our vignettes: a deep pit with a central image and four secrets buried around it (or, rather, the apex of Heaven with the four pillars of Heaven supporting it), and a central citadel in a beautiful city guarded by four powerful gates.  To me, the symbolism would link the Perfect Nature itself with that central citadel, being able to harmonize to the planets (though always linking one most to one’s own ruling planet).  Protected by the four gates and empowered by the central citadel, “the inhabitants of the city were made virtuous and freed from sin, wickedness, and sloth…its people were most deeply learned in the ancient sciences, their profundities, and secrets, and in the science of astronomy”.   Doesn’t this all sound awfully similar to the benefits of communing and working with one’s Perfect Nature?  While I’m not sure whether or not it was written to this intent, it’s starting to sound a lot like that the City of Adocentyn, the Spiritual Hermopolis/El-Ashmunein/Khemenu, while it may well have existed in the mind of the author of the Picatrix and in myth generally, can be read as a strong metaphor for the perfection of one’s own spiritual life.  In working with and living in accordance with our Perfect Nature, we build our own internal Adocentyn of the soul, lush and abundant in life, wisdom, and wealth.

There is one final lingering problem, though: what do we make of sleep?  We know that Ibn Khaldūn in his Muqaddimah gives the four names “Tamāġīs, Baġdīswād, Waġdās, Nūfānāġādīs” (really, a variant thereof, “tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghads nawfana ghadis”, which may or may not be Aramaic in origin) as an incantation one uses before sleep to obtain a vision of Perfect Nature, apart and away from any rite of communion or sacred feast, and we also know that Hermēs Trismegistus received his first vision of Perfect Nature in a dream.  Dream/trance states are important for continuing one’s work with Perfect Nature, just as it was for Hermēs and Poimandrēs all the way back in the Corpus Hermeticum, and gives us a means to continually remain in contact beyond a yearly or semiyearly ritual.  It’s the constant work, the constant development, the constant communion we remain in that allows such a relationship to truly flourish—again, we see similar ideas crop up time and again in any culture or magical tradition that involves the presence and aid of an agathodaimōn, genius, tutelar, guardian angel, etc.  Big rituals are good, but it’s the small, quotidian stuff that should never, ever be neglected.

Despite the relatively late text of the Picatrix, at least as far as classical Hermetic stuff goes which the Picatrix does not properly fall into compared to other works like the Corpus Hermeticum or Asclepius or Stobaean Fragments, we find in this chapter of the Picatrix something that’s so starkly, obviously Hermetic, both in tone and content, augmented with a culturally-shifting evolution from classical pagan to (then) modern eclectic practices of spiritual works, here combining the secrets of divinity with astrology, alchemy, magic, and many other practices, almost in a seamless way.  Sure, the Perfect Nature of the Picatrix may not be the Poimandrēs, but the sentiment here is so close and familiar as to be easily understandable.  The Perfect Nature of the Picatrix is the Picatrix’s own take on one’s genius spirit, and as such, should certainly be considered one possible route to attain this crucial relationship so vital to the well-being, spiritual development, and ultimate success of any magician, philosopher, or sage—or, indeed, anyone at all.

And yes, the ritual is up on its own page for easy access under the main menu: Rituals → Communion of Perfect Nature

One response

  1. Pingback: The Geomancer’s Cross: The Motions and the Prayer « The Digital Ambler

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